If there was any doubt that the oft-injured Sidney Crosby had retained his title as “The Game’s Best Player,” he put all suggestions to rest Friday night in a shower of ball caps and a chant that seemed to come from all 18,645 throats in Consol Energy Center.
The 2013 Hart Trophy finalist – along with Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and John Tavares of the New York Islanders – scored a natural hat trick in the first and second period of his Pittsburgh Penguins’ Game 2 match with the Ottawa Senators, leading his team to a 4-3 victory and a two-games-to-none lock on this best-of-seven Round 2 series.
Crosby’s dominance from the opening faceoff to the first two shots on goal, which he took, scoring on the second, was pivotal as the Penguins took early control and maintained it for much of the night, outshooting the Senators 42-22.
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma was unsurprisingly pleased with his captains' performance.
"Tonight I think it was his best -- and it was his best early on," Bylsma said.
Yet the Senators kept it close in the third period, giving them some slim hope for when the series resumes Sunday in Ottawa.
If you went by the chatter of the morning skates, you would fully anticipate Ottawa would have been on the early attack and the Penguins scrambling to defend as Game 2 opened.
“Any time a team loses a Game 1,” Pittsburgh defenceman Matt Niskanen had said, “there’s usually a big pushback in Game 2 – so be ready for it.”
“I expect them to come out pretty hard,” added Crosby. “They’ll want to start better and come out harder, so we’ve got to be ready for that.”
“We’re going to respond,” vowed Senators head coach Paul MacLean, earlier that morning named a finalist for the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL’s top coach.
“We’re going to make it a series.”
That, certainly, was the expectation, yet it was the Penguins that came out on fire and the Senators who scrambled.
Crosby put his team ahead 1-0 barely three minutes into the game when he flew up the left side, blew past Ottawa’s star defenceman Erik Karlsson and fired a hard wrist shot past Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson.
It was Crosby’s 100 playoff point in 75 post-season games. Most impressive, though Crosby’s mentor, Mario Lemieux reached the same plateau in a mere 50 games.
Karlsson was caught so flat-footed on the play that it dramatically underscored a growing debate this week as to whether or not the super-keen 22-year-old defending Norris Trophy defenceman had rushed his own recovery. Karlsson’s Achilles tendon had been sliced 70 per cent through on Feb. 13 by the skate of Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke and had been expected to miss the remainder of the season, only to come back just in time for the playoffs.
“(I’m) struggling a little bit, and it is what it is. I don’t have the answer to it myself, I’ve got to figure my body out and obviously I’m not feeling or playing the same way I am used to,"Karlsson said.
MacLean expressed that Karlsson's lack of ice time was simply due to poor play.
"He played 13:37, which isn't normal for him, so obviously he wasn't one of our best players. He didn't play well."
“I don’t think there’s any doubt he’s fighting it a bit,” said teammate Chris Phillips of Karlsson.
Prior to the injury, Karlsson would easily have stayed with Crosby who, earlier in the day, had himself expressed great admiration for the young Swedish defenceman.
“Whenever he’s out there the puck kind of follows him,” Crosby had said of Karlsson. “He’s smart. His speed allows him to be all over the ice.”
But not this night, not when Crosby beat him so easily on the opening goal and not again, later in the opening period, when Crosby again came down Karlsson’s side, kept the puck just out of Karlsson’s reach and then threw a harmless looking shot at the Ottawa goal that slipped past Anderson, who clearly was reading pass.
That gave Pittsburgh a 2-1 lead, as a few minutes earlier Ottawa had scored on the power play when captain Daniel Alfredsson fed a quick pass to Kyle Turris and Turris basically shovelled the puck in past Penguins goaltender Tomas Vokoun.
A goaltender’s duel this was not. Of the opening three goals, only Crosby’s first deserved late night replay.
At the :49 mark of the second period, Karlsson took a hooking penalty when he let Cooke slip away on him for a shot. With Karlsson off, Crosby scored his third of the night on a hard slapshot that cleanly beat Anderson.
The sellout crowd predictably erupted, caps cascading down to celebrate the hat trick. And then the chants began.
Anderson was then replaced in net with Robin Lehner, who played well, particularly later in the game when he stoned both Jarome Iginla and Evgeni Malkin.
"Nothing against Andy. Just try to get the team to recognize we were in the game," MacLean said during his postgame press conference.
Ottawa’s Colin Greening, playing far better in the postseason than the regular season, scored to bring Ottawa to within a goal, but the Penguins moved to 4-2 when yet another Pittsburgh power play had just expired, Brenden Borrow tipping in a point shot from defenceman Paul Martin.
Early in the third period, Ottawa rookie Jean-Gabriel Pageau scored his fourth goal of the playoffs when he picked a loose puck out of a goalmouth scramble and nudged it into the back of the Pittsburgh net to again put the Senators a goal away.
All season long, the Senators prided themselves on being a “third-period team,” capable of coming from behind when least expected.
"They've always responded...they keep coming back. They've done that all year long," Bylsma said.
But it was not to happen this night.
"Catch-up hockey is losing hockey," MacLean said.
The Senators hinted Friday that they might have top centre Jason Spezza, out since the end of January following back surgery, back for Game 3. Spezza has been working out regularly back in Ottawa.
"If he's available to us, it's Jason Spezza,” said MacLean.
“We're going to have him in the lineup."
And they are going to need him.